Dan Ariely: My Biggest Career Mistake

Question: What has been your biggest career mistake?

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DAN ARIELY: I was teaching a class in MIT and there’s another professor who scheduled a makeup session three weeks on top of my class. So eight students came to me and said ‘Look, we don’t know what to do. We have your class and we have his class and the makeup session and we don’t know what to do.’ And we asked him if he could schedule a different time and he said no. He said his accounting was more important than what I was teaching or whatever it is. And so I told his students ‘You know what, come every Friday.’ They could come for the first half of the lecture leave for the second half and I’ll give it back to you on Friday. So this happened one week, it happened another week; the third week, we’re taking a break and I walked by this other professor’s class and I just got annoyed, right? My emotions got the best out of me. I said look at this guy. He’s scheduled something, so inconsiderate, on top of my class, these students have to go, I have to give them again the lecture on Friday.

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So I walked into his class. He’s kind of in the middle of teaching. I walked in and said to him, “I’m a second year assistant professor.” He has no idea who I am; I said ‘Paul, I just want you to realize you scheduled your class over my class. I thought it was very inconsiderate, it’s very annoying. But that’s it. I told you what I think. This is the end of it.’ And I walked out. He was confused. He had no idea who I was or what I was talking about and so on. The next thing I get was a call from the Dean. And what he wanted me to do was basically to apologize in front of the whole, of the whole school. And the Dean at the time was a very good economist. So I said ‘Look, you’re a good economist. You understand signaling. So think about it – this was a bad incident. I agree there are some issues here. But what’s the chance that anybody will ever schedule their class on top of mine?’

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Recorded on: July 29, 2009

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The behavioral economist reflects upon the day that his emotions got the best of him.

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